French Expatriates and Foreign Francophiles

First, a definition: an expatriate is someone who lives outside the country of his birth on a more or less permanent basis. I am dealing here with French expatriates specifically, a fairly rare breed in relation to the size of the French population, rarer than English and American expatriates, for example.

The French expatriates often land in a particular town of a particular country at a particular time for no particular reason. They may have been heading somewhere else and gotten stuck along the way. They always include wives and former wives of natives who may have divorced them, or died. Coming from different epochs (such as before and after the establishment of French social democracy in the 1980s), they form historical strata. Each stratum remembers a different France, and the strata may entertain disparate and often incompatible visions of the fatherland.

They have developed new habits in the country where they live and, without knowing it, they have drifted far from their culture of origin. Many disseminate patently false notions about the country where they were raised; they do it more or less innocently because myth-making and absence go well together. Their French self is forever a young person, or even a child. Their own children are simply natives of their land of residence with a smattering of the French language and no real curiosity, forever strangers to their parents.

The Francophiles are yet another story. They are people who don’t have the luck to have been born French but who love what they imagine is French culture with a degree of repressed hysteria. No part of the world is free of them. I have bumped into them everywhere I have been; they have victimized me everywhere with their undeserved love. Many but by no means all are also francophone to some extent. Some gain standing in their own mind via their real or imagined mastery of what they have decided is a superior national culture.

They are usually very parochial, doubly so because they are fixated on France and on their own country, to the exclusion of knowledge of any other part of the world. Others are teachers of French who feel professionally obligated to revere that which they teach and, by extension, everything French. Often, they don’t even know the language very well, limited as they are by the cramped discourse of textbooks, without awareness of the vigor, of the colorfulness, and, especially, of the frequent crudeness of the real French language of both literature and everyday life. (“Cul-de-sac,” for example, means “ass of a bag.”)

Once, a long time ago, in Bolivia of all places, I observed that the two groups mixed well. It was at a Bastille Day celebration at the French consulate. The French expats and the Francophiles shared the rudimentary popular imagery of the 1789 French revolution, that beheaded a king for the sake of “public salvation,” and his pretty, frivolous young queen, just in case. (That was after storming a prison-fortress, the Bastille, that was largely undefended.)

Think of reading my book: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. It’s available from Amazon, under my name. I need the bucks. Please!

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7 thoughts on “French Expatriates and Foreign Francophiles

  1. “The Francophiles are yet another story. They are people who don’t have the luck to have been born French but who love what they imagine is French culture with a degree of repressed hysteria. No part of the world is free of them. I have bumped into them everywhere I have been; they have victimized me everywhere with their undeserved love. Many but by no means all are also francophone to some extent. Some gain standing in their own mind via their real or imagined mastery of what they have decided is a superior national culture.”

    Lovely piece here!! I’ve only been to France once and I loved it.

  2. Fascinating, thank you.

    I’d just like to add a question about francophone communities throughout the world (as opposed to francophile or expatriate communities). I’ve noticed, in my very limited interaction with francophone communities, that they tend to be black due to French colonization efforts in West Africa.

    Is this something you’ve noticed as well?

  3. One more question (it’s one that’s been nagging at me for awhile now): what’s the difference between an expatriate and an immigrant?

  4. Two answers to two questions, last first. An immigrant is someone who has definitely made up his mind that he is in a foreign country for good, to live and die. An expatriate (in spite of Delacroix’s careless statement) is someone who has not yet decided if he is an immigrant. An expatriate may plan to be in a foreign country for a relatively short time.

    French colonization, in most places, left behind a legacy of speaking and formally learning the French language. The statement is more or less valid depending on the former colony. In Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, there seems to be relatively little reliance on the French language. Nevertheless, Vietnam is a prominent member of something called (from memory) “Conseil international de la francophonie.” In much of West Africa, French is, by default, the only national language. The three North African countries of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco tried after independence to Arabize school curricula. My understanding is that those attempts at reform were ill received and that they have largely been abandoned. I think they have returned to French almost exclusive starting in junior high.

    Of course, nearly one half of the Belgians, one quarter of the Swiss and most of Quebec and many other small parts of Canada are francophone. The Cajuns of Lousiana seem to be keeping their French alive because they multiply faster than they lose the language. And then there is Haiti. In some countries that were not French colonies, there are large minorities that are at ease in the French language. These include Egypt, Iran, Syria and Lebanon (under French administration between the two world wars, actually), Argentina, and Romania (where the level of fluency in French is astounding.) There are even (south) American Indians who are French speakers. Think about it!

    My own necessarily subjective and possibly unrepresentative experience is this: It’s easy to find one’s way in French in any of the former French colonies (broadly defined). The ability to use French depends largely on social class, as you might expect.

    My other subjective but firmly held judgment is that there are more people who know and use French well in Senegal, in Haiti, and in North Africa than in France(another story,obviously). I find French speakers everywhere I go (who are not necessarily Francophiles). The language is a real link although perhaps not to the point of being the basis of a “community.” I use French everyday thanks to the international francophone channel TV5. Warning: The quality of its material varies tremendously.

    If you have studied French and wish to do more in that direction, you may want to look up my recent electronic book: “Les Pumas de grande-banlieue: histoires d’emigration.” No one else has, I think.

  5. Hi Jacques
    I just loved your precise description of ‘Francophiles’.
    I’m a self-confessed Hispanophile so I embarrassingly recognised myself in your description by default.
    Very clever post!
    Regards. Marie.

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